Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ann Nocenti, Daredevil, late 1980s

About a year-and-a-half ago, bored by the dull politics that clog too much of my book-in-progress, I decided to spend some time thinking about the stories that made we want to write in the first place. I was a Tolkien geek as a kid -- I spent first grade reading throught The Lord of the Rings, very slowly -- but that ground had been trampled by the movies. I loved them despite all their faults, but they so fully claimed the stories for the bright light of pop culture that little of the imaginative mystery I remember from childhood remains. So I turned to the other mothersource: Comic books. At first, I bought only a title called "Amazing X-Men," because it was written by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and, for my money, one of the most emotionally perceptive writers at work in any genre. Then, at the recommendation of a man in a bar, I moved onto Brian Bendis' Daredevil. Bendis at his best is another one of the great contemporary writers, but, of course, he's unknown in literary circles because he works in a pulp genre, and, what's more, he clearly loves that pulp genre -- he's not trying to transcend it, he's trying to fulfill it.

I'd occasionally buy my comics from Forbidden Planet, the giant comic/geek emporium at Broadway and 13th, but I preferred to pick them up from a guy named Joe who runs a tiny shop round the corner from me called The Dugout. Sports cards, toy figurines, and a half dozen new titles every month. Not always the same title. I can't figure Joe out -- he reads the comics, discerns between the writers, and sells them like they're a front for his real business. Which, I gather, the whole place is -- he's an old neighborhood guy, and I think he makes his money on real estate deals, turning over the 'hood to people like me.

He's not one of those guys who won't talk to the yuppies, but you have to pass his test. First time I go into the store, he recommends Bendis' Alias, a great comic about a depressed private eye who quit superheroing because her powers -- a little bit of flying, stronger than the average sally -- were to lame to carry a storyline. But that wasn't what Joe was talking about. "Check it out," he says. "Page fuckin' one, Luke Cage"--another superhero with grade B powers--"givin' it to her from behind!" Joe's pretty big in the gut, but his hips proved remarkably nimble as he reached out and humped an imaginary superheroine-turned-private eye.

I bought the book. Joe's been helpful with comics advice ever since.

This past Thanksgiving, I found two boxes of childhood comics in my father's attic and gave them to my four-year-old nephew, Teo. (No explicit sex, but plenty of the implicit kink that fuels all stories beloved by children.) Teo has been wearing superhero costumes for about two years. He can't read comics, and he doesn't really care what the storyline is, but he loves them. Dressed as Superman, he heaved the boxes upside down and poured out avalanches of comics onto the floor. Then he rolled around in them, giggling and tossing them into the air. I intervened -- not on behalf of the maybe-valuable books, but for the sake of my old Daredevils. Those, I took back to Brooklyn with me, and I've been reading them one or two a day since Thanksgiving.

Which brings me to the title of this post, Ann Nocenti, the writer of the most interesting stories in the run I had. (I started collecting after the legendary -- and overrated -- Frank Miller, whose fascistic sadism seemed as real as his talent.) I don't have a complete run anymore, so I had to piece together the narratives, but that made the stories better, more elliptical, which is the effect I think Nocenti was aiming for. I won't summarize. Suffice it to say that Daredevil, the blind boxer with "radar" power, ninja-grace, and a billy club, battles mainly a villain called Mephisto. The name isn't metaphorical. Mephisto is the devil, or a devil, or something crazy and lewd and demonic and clever. One of my favorites involves Manhattan transformed into hell, with everybody going about their ordinary business as machines and bureaucrats combine into monsters all around them, such as the grinning cop/dentist/drill/taxi combo with smoke coming out of his ears called Officer Drill. Daredevil, in a daze, disillusioned among the illusions, walks amongst the horrors occasionally kicking or punching a baddie. But he's not all there. He's never all there in Nocenti's stories, as if the superhero himself is so freaked out by his powers that he's retreated into a natural prozac haze.

Eventually, Daredevil lands in actual hell. The stories here are funny -- all the demons drawn by John Romita, Jr., are revolting and giggle-inducing at the same time. They're also heavy-handed -- this is Big Thoughts 101, which, I'm guessing, is all Nocenti thought Daredevil readers could handle. (And many of them couldn't handle that; there were plenty of letters from adult readers demanding a return to ass-whuppings in Manhattan.) That combination -- absurd, and didactic, and fantastic -- must have made for a wonderful time of writing. No concern for drama, art, or even pulp -- just Nocenti's mind turned inside out onto the page, with the anxieties of a blind lawyer/acrobat hero as her frame.

What happened to Nocenti? She became an editor of High Times. An appropriate career choice for such a trippy intelligence. But Nocenti's stories were more loyal to the comics pulp genre than they seemed, particularly the political tension at the heart of the superhero narrative, between the inherent conservatism of a strongman who sets things right and the implicit radicalism of carnivalesque fantasies of spider-men and women, green-skinned, muscle-bound ids, and robots with sex lives. From Bakhtin's 1965 study of Rabelais, which made "carnival" an essential term of lit crit:
It could be said (with certain reservations, of course) that a person of the Middle Ages lived, as it were, two lives: one that was the official life, monolithically serious and gloomy, subjugated to a strict hierarchical order, full of terror, dogmatism, reverence and piety; the other was the life of the carnival square, free and unrestricted, full of ambivalent laughter, blasphemy, the profanation of everything sacred, full of debasing and obscenities, familiar contact with everyone and everything.
Here's Nocenti on what attracted her to comics, in an interview I found on a Daredevil fan site:
I painted oils and did zinc plate etching back then, i.e.: I was poor. Answering a help wanted Village Voice ad, I sincerely lied my way past the shooter at the door, pretending I knew what a comic was. Once inside the citadel I was stunned by the incendiary energy of words and pics shoved into little box grids, printed on toilet paper, to be rolled up and stuck in a back pocket like a rag. The whole thing seemed subversive. Why was all this psychedelic power crammed into such tiny, badly-printed packages? Were they peddling some new drug here? I knew right away I wanted a crack at making the things.
Me, too! That's why I got into writing.